Friday, December 02, 2016

Thoughts on Disney Sequels

So, this video from the Nostalgia Critic got me thinking:

Nowadays, when everything coming out of Hollywood is either a re-boot, a sequel, or a remake, it's fashionable for the intelligentsia to despise sequels.  Sequelitis is supposed to represent everything that is wrong with Hollywood and our culture.

And yet, I think the audience's desire for sequels is completely understandable.

This desire may not be entirely rational, but it's entirely predictable given how the human mind works.

You see, consciously we all recognize on some level that movies and books are created by humans, and that they reflect not only the limitations of the humans that created them, but also the limitations of the conditions they were created under.

And yet, subconsciously we don't recognize this at all.  Whenever we are engrossed in a really good movie or book, we forget that this is something that another human being has created, and we feel as if we have been transported into another world.  And this other world feels like it's alive on its own terms.

When we've had a magically experience in a good movie or book, we want to return to this world and spend more time with these characters.
(In fact the human desire for this is so strong that if Hollywood didn't supply the sequels, fans would create them on their own.  See Stuff You Like and the history of FanFiction Parts 1, 2, and 3).

So strong is this unconscious desire that, for me at least, it took me a long time to fully realize that these worlds do not actually exist on their own terms.
The most vivid example of this for my generation is probably the Star Wars prequels.  The production of these movies were announced when I was still in high school, and I was looking forward to them for years.  I was sure they would be amazing because they were Star Wars.
But it turns out Star Wars does not exist as an organic entity.  Star Wars is only as good as the people working on it at any given time.  And it could be that these people and their collaborators change over the years. Or that they run out of good ideas.

I've had similar disillusions in my life with other shows. The Simpsons for example.  When I was 12, I didn't imagine the show would ever drop in quality, because I never really could imagine the show as an assembly line of animators and writers and producers.  I just saw it as its own world when I turned on the TV.
But in fact, it was always an assembly line of animators and writers and producers.  And when all those talented people began leaving the show, it began to drop off in quality.  Others stayed on, but ran out off good ideas long ago.

And then the Disney Sequels.

My generation was the last generation of children to grow up before the flood of Disney sequels hit.  For us, the idea of a sequel to Peter Pan or The Jungle Book or 101 Dalmatians was only something to be imagined, but never actually seen.
I would have killed to see a Peter Pan sequel back when I was 7 years old.  I loved that movie so much, and desperately wanted more, more, more.  But that's because I didn't fully understand that another trip into this world wouldn't automatically be as magical as the first.
It's probably for the best that our generation was spared these awful lazy sequels.  It kept the original movies more magical for us.
But now the sequels are out there and there's no getting rid of them.  They will be a part of everyone's childhood from this point on, and it will be interesting to see how they will affect the next generation's perception of the legacy of these movies.

The sequel to Peter Pan, Return to Neverland, wasn't terrible.  But it wasn't very good either.

Comparing it to the original, however, can yield some interesting observations.

The original Peter Pan was made all the way back in 1953.  And yet, it holds up surprisingly well.

And I say "surprisingly" because most stuff from the 1950s doesn't hold up very well for modern audiences.
Actually this in itself  is fascinating--when you think about it, the fact that movies have such a short shelf-life before they become dated and unwatchable for the next generation is a very curious phenomena in and of itself--but that's another whole subject, so we'll have to save an examination of that for another post.

For the moment, I just want to observe that because most of the stuff from the 1950s seems very dated and unwatchable to modern audiences, it makes the exceptions all the more interesting.

And for whatever reason, Disney animation seems to be one of the exceptions.  The pacing, the humor, the slapstick of Disney's 1953 Peter Pan can entertain any kid today as easily as it did in the 1950s.

With that in mind, it's interesting to watch the 2002 Return to Neverland, and see exactly how 50 years failed to improve on anything.

In both movies, the journey to Neverland doesn't happen until about 15 minutes in.  So, for both movies approximately the first 15 minutes are devoted to the set-up: showing the characters in their natural home, and setting up their personalities.
This is naturally the most boring part of the movie, but it's a necessary evil.   The characters have to be set up somehow before the story can begin.  We've got to get through these first 15 minutes somehow.

In the 1953 version of this movie, the writers knew that the only way to get the audience through this part was to make it as funny as possible.  Characters have to be set-up, sure, but there's no reason why we can't have a few laughs while we're doing it.
Watch the 1953 version of this movie, and count just how many jokes, gags, and slapstick are in that first 15 minutes.  Or better yet, count how many seconds you have to go before there's another laugh--the gags fly at you so fast, you seldom have to wait more than a couple seconds. (The whole movie is available on youtube here--unfortunately the embedding function is disabled,  but if you just want a small taste of the opening, I've embedded a 3 minute clip below).

Now remember, this was back in 1953.  The only way you could see movies in those days was to drive to the theater.  The audience had already bought their ticket, and we're settled into their seats in the cinema. No one at Disney was worried about that the audience was not going to stick through the whole set up because they got bored.  Once the audience had bought their tickets, they were in for the whole show.
And yet, they still went out of their way to make sure they crammed as many laughs into the set-up as they possible could.

Compare this to the 2002 Return to Neverland, where there are virtually no jokes in the first 15 minutes, and it's a struggle to even stay awake until the Pirates arrive.

(Once again, the whole movie is available on youtube, here, but I can't embed it.  Embedded below is just a 4 minute clip.  The set-up continues for another 10 minutes after this if you watch the whole thing.  Notice the complete lack of any laughs during the whole thing.)

This is a prime example of writers taking their audience for granted.  "Yeah, whatever, just throw something on the screen.  They'll sit through it.  Stupid kids will sit through anything on the TV."

But aside from lazy writers, it's also important to remember that the original 1953 Peter Pan spent years in production.  The movie was in development since the 1930s, and the Disney company spent years writing and re-writing and re-writing it.

This is something we as an audience know consciously, but forget subconsciously.  Especially when we are absorbed in the magic of the movie, we forget exactly just how much work went into creating the story, and we think it would be the simplest thing ever to just return to this world and have everything be as magical as it was the first time.

We badly want to return to this magic, and Disney will gladly take our cash, but no one is willing to spend another 15 years writing and developing the next Peter Pan movie.  And so it's inevitable that we'll get a lazy sequel that will disappoint everyone.

Anyway, all of this is a long way of saying that I understand the Nostalgia Critic's desire for more Disney sequels.  I also want to return to these magical worlds.  But it's impossible.  The magic of the first movie can never be re-created.

But as long as the Nostalgia Critic is dreaming, let me join him in this fantasy.  Let's imagine, for the sake of this little fantasy, that sequels could somehow be made would recapture the magic of the originals.  Which Disney sequels would I like to see?

I agree with the Nostalgia critic on many of his choices: more Robin Hood.  More Great Mouse Detective.
I would also love to see more Sword in the Stone.  After all, this book was only the first in The Once and Future King tetralogy--there's 3 more books on the King Arthur legend waiting to be adopted.
More adventures of Mr Toad, Rat, Mole and Badger.
Assuming for the sake of this fantasy that the magic of the original Bambi could be reproduced, I'd be all for a Bambi sequel.
I'd be up for more Jungle Book as well.   (I know it already got one sequel, but there are many adventures a boy could have in the jungle.)

And more Peter Pan.  That one sequel wasn't enough.  There are so many more adventures left to be had on Neverland.

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